The Dashing Duo

Pacific Forktail Damselfly (Ischnura cervula)
Eight-spotted Skimmer Dragonfly (Libellula forensis)

Kelly’s Field Notes

Common Name: Dragonflies and Damselflies

Order: Odonata (refers to their toothed mandibles) - Dragonflies belong to suborder Epiprocta and Damselflies belong to suborder Zygoptera. Suborders rank between Order and Family.

Species of Note:  3,000 species of dragonfly worldwide, 2,600 damselfly species worldwide 


Dragonflies - Adult dragonflies can range in length from 2.5 - 10 cm (1 - 4 in). Their wingspans are from 5 - 12.7 cm (2 - 5 in). They have thick bodies and when at rest their wings lay horizontally (wings of unequal size). They are paleopterous, incapable of folding their wings back along their abdomen. They have very tiny antennae, are generally iridescent in color, and have long abdomens with 10 segments. Dragonflies have two large compound eyes which touch and three tiny simple eyes (simple eyes detect light). Their mouths are for chomping! Their mouthparts are toothed and the labrum can be shot forward to grab prey (like in Aliens!). The nymphs’ labrum extends even further. You can think of the labrum almost like an upper lip that helps secure the food while the insect eats.

Speaking of nymphs! Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are aquatic, and while their body plan is mostly like an adult’s they don’t have reproductive organs and instead of wings they have tiny wing buds. Dragonfly gills are located within their abdomens. Actually an easy way to tell a dragonfly nymph from a damselfly nymph is check their abdomen! Damselfly gills are located outside of their abdomens, fanning out like a triple fishtail. Nymphs come in four types: sprawlers, claspers, burrowers, and hiders. Some have fuzz on their bodies to collect detritus for camouflage. 

Damselflies - Adult damselflies can range in length from 3.8 - 5 cm (1.5 - 2 in). Their wingspans are from 18mm - 19 cm (0.7 - 7.5 in). They have thin delicate looking bodies, and when they are at rest most of the time their wings lie vertically and together, neopterus (wings of even size make them slower than dragonflies). They have very tiny antennae, are generally iridescent in color, and have long abdomens with 10 segments. Damselflies have two large compound eyes which do not touch and three tiny simple eyes.

The giant dragonflies living during the Carboniferous period are not Odonates. They belong to the Order Meganisoptera (wingspans of up to 71 cm (28 in). 

Life Cycle:

Unlike the other insects we’ve covered so far, dragonflies and damselflies undergo incomplete metamorphosis; egg, several nymph stages, adult. Eggs are either endophytic or exophytic. Endophytic eggs are oval shaped, and injected directly into leaves, stems, mud, rotted wood, or near the surface of the water. Hawker dragonflies lay this way and some emerald damselflies lay their eggs in this manner. Some damselflies take this to the next level by plunging their entire bodies into the water to lay their eggs, relying on the males they are attached to to pull them back out again. Exophytic eggs, which are round in shape, are laid on the water’s surface, coated in a jelly-like substance. Dragonflies species who lay this way are emeralds, skimmers, darters, and chasers. Eggs take 2-5 weeks to hatch, or up to a year for some species.

Once hatched the nymphs will make their way into the water, if eggs were laid above the water line, or begin swimming and hunting if laid submerged. Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are voracious eaters! They prey upon mosquito larvae and other aquatic insects, small fish, and tadpoles. And each other! It typically takes about 2 years for a nymph to mature into an adult, but some species can take up to 5 years, or are finished in only 3 months. Water temperature affects food availability which is a driver for how long it takes to reach adulthood.

When nymphs are approaching adulthood they start to spend more time near the surface of the water. When it’s time, they either crawl up vegetation, rocks or the embankment or sometimes need to crawl several meters before finding a suitable location to molt. Most of the time this happens in the morning, but some species begin the process at night. It can take an hour for dragonflies to fully emerge as adults from their exuvia (casing) or three hours for damselflies. Adults only live about two weeks (though sometimes up to 8 weeks), spending their time eating, mating, and laying eggs.

Super Powers:

Dragonflies and Damselflies in Culture: 

Book Recommendations:

Paulson, Dennis. Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East. Princeton University Press, 2012.

Where To Report a Sighting:

There are several Odanata surveys taking place in many states. If you’d like to contribute by sharing a sighting that would be helpful to the scientists running these research projects!

Odonata Central Project -

Mass Audubon -

Minnesota Dragonfly Project -

New Jersey Odonata Survey -


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